Category Archives: Building community

Three ways to stop the argument in your head

Someone I know (call them Z) was betrayed big time by two old friends not long ago. A job was lost, a reputation sullied. One of the betrayers moved far away from their small town, so Z felt OK about cutting them off. But the other person was not going anywhere. It was almost guaranteed Z was going to see her at the supermarket.

This traumatizer kept popping up in Z’s head. She had said some terrible things. She had told some lies. Z suspected she was spreading slander to common friends, not to mention other people in town who were hungry for gossip and did not mind a bit of scandal.

Invasive thoughts were getting a bit debilitating. Z was out for a walk along a beautiful creek on a perfect fall day but the slanderous woman found some headspace and soon Z was arguing with her. She was impossible to shake. Z’s spouse asked what was wrong and suddenly they were both mad again and the leaves began to turn dull.

Most of us can be tormented by recurrent negative thoughts that tie us up: “What if? What did I do wrong? What am I going to do? How can this be happening to me?” Hurts and losses bubble up as anger. We start saying all the things to the person we didn’t say before. We imagine what they are saying and argue back. We let them colonize our minds. Soon we’re afraid to go to the store for fear of being more overwhelmed!

Here are three common ways to get out of the debilitating cycle of arguing in your head, three ways to move on, grow up, or get through rather than dreading the thought of that person, rather than feeling stuck, or fearing the possibility of open conflict .

Shutting off an internal argument

These suggestions are mainly about changing how you behave.

  • Accept the problem is not going away and be friendly anyway. This may be important when you are related to the antagonist. Just accept you’re different and let it be. “Don’t go there.” Obviously, some major differences may require planning for a calm conversation. But smaller issues can be let go.
  • Choose who you relate to. You do not need to have a good relationship with everyone, especially abusive or argumentative people. It may pain you to scroll by people you think you should care about, or maybe even love. But it is not required to soak up bile or endure uncaring behavior.
  • Remember you have value even if they don’t value you. What other people think about you or say about you is mainly about them, not you. If you are not so emotionally wrapped up in what they said or did it is easier to avoid having unfinished arguments with them in your head. If your co-worker mocks you for the mistake you made, talk yourself out of staying awake feeling stupid that night, “He’s got reasons for being mean and I’ve got plenty of reasons to think I’ll master my job.”
  • Nip the internal argument in the bud. How often have you been washing dishes and realize the free space in your brain has been invaded by “that old argument?” It is great if you can gently note what’s happening and turn to something else. It might take some practice. Maybe you could create a helpful catch phrase to use like, “These thoughts are poisonous, don’t drink them.”
  • If you can’t stop, you could distract yourself. That does not mean looking them up on Instagram and feeling superior. Go for a walk, even if it just around the house; get your body on your side. Call a supportive friend (not to get them arguing too, that could just dig the rut deeper). Do a puzzle. Breathe it out – pray it out. You might not want to vacuum, that might leave brain space unoccupied for more argument.
  • Try setting apart a limited time to fret. If certain thoughts are derailing the whole day, you might try setting apart a limited amount of time to go ahead and think them through. A half an hour in solitude after dinner to practice an upcoming conversation or play through an old one might diminish the threat of them popping up when you’d rather be having sex or preparing for an exam.

Working through the feelings

These suggestions mainly attend to emotions.

  • Trying mentalizing about the whole conversation instead of deflecting bits. Imagine what you and the other person are really trying to say; you might get to say what you wish you had said. But don’t just unleash your fury and devastate them, focus on the feelings that upset you. When the co-worker made you look incompetent, why did that hurt? Are you insecure? Do you feel you are not recognized for your abilities? Did he remind you of your dad, your brother or that demeaning coach in jr. high?
  • Name the emotions as they arise. It is hard to keep a replay going if you don’t feel it deeply. The incident may have triggered some unfinished developmental business you have or may have reignited a traumatic experience. If you name what you feel you might understand your emotions better and and not be run around by a mysterious inner “force.” You might say, “I’m afraid I will be embarrassed when I see them in the store,” or “My anger is strangling me.” It is good for us when we let our emotions be normal, not a threat or a sin, and figure out what we want to do about them.
  • Get your feelings out of your head and into your journal. Maybe your process so far has been the first part of working something out and now you can express what you’ve come to and even make a plan. Use your journal. Maybe you could write a letter to the person with whom you’ve been arguing. You don’t have to give it to them; sometimes communication is no longer possible, or advisable – especially if you’ve been abused or they represent how you have been marginalized. In that case, just getting it out of your mind and onto the paper may be enough. You could burn the letter and let the contents go. You can close your journal and leave the feelings in the past.
  • Professional counselors try to be adept at helping people work through anxiety. If you are losing sleep, t of knowing increasingly angry or depressed, you might like to talk to someone you can trust, professional or not.

Having a healing interpersonal process

These suggestions mainly work with how you relate.

  • Express yourself. If you are a Christian you probably feel obligated to be reconciled with people or, unfortunately, appear to be OK with everyone. Regardless, if you’ve been having an argument with someone in your head and you think it is remotely possible you can have a personal, undistracted moment with them, it would could be good to talk to them. You could begin with, “That comment you made the other day about my work really bothered me. So I thought I’d circle back. Were you just being funny? Or were you trying to say something I need to hear?” It helps to rehearse what you’d like to calmly say.
  • Create a safe place. When you initiate a dialogue, it would help to let the person know you are doing something you care about and invite them into it, rather than just appearing out of nowhere saying something super serious. You could begin with something like, “I feel a little awkward being this personal, but I would like to tell you about what I’ve been feeling. I hope you’ll take a turn to talk when I’m finished.”
  • Keep calm. Something that even smells like conflict often sets people into fight, flight or freeze mode. So it will help them if your tone is calm and you speak slowly. If you have them listening and you bring some fiery emotion they will probably get caught up with how you are acting, not with what you are communicating. Remember to tell an “I” story, not a “you” story. The more you say “you,” the more likely they are to stop listening and start defending themselves.
  • It is always better for healing if there are less details and more feelings. Yes, they came home an hour later than expected and they’ve done other inconsiderate things in the past. The point is to invite them to care about how worried you felt and to work on a deeper trust that will allow you both to feel safe and connected. Especially if you are married, your marriage is a “common ground” you share. You can work on building a good relationship rather than working on one another’s flaws.

 What if none of that stopped the argument in your head?

Wouldn’t it be nice if relationships were “plug and play?” Wouldn’t it be great if each of us were not so complicated? Not long ago, one of my clients said to their mate, “Can we just agree that everyone is shitty?” The mate did not naturally go with such thoughts (thus, therapy), but they went with it that time and it relieved quite a bit of tension. Nothing really “works.” We won’t do everything “right.” We can’t. And if we did do something right, it probably  would not get perfect results in an imperfect world.

If you keep rehashing after all this work, you must be very committed to this internal argument! Maybe it has come to define you. Chances are, if you can’t let go, you are working with something rather deep. I hope you can let it be unresolved for now in a tender way. It must be a mystery and Jesus will need to save you. Constantly working out the puzzle like you are in charge of your own salvation is not going to be better than giving up on complete resolution. Many people have taken these conundrums that torment them like they torment you and lifted them to God in an act of submission and trust. Maybe you need to acknowledge the “thorn” that keeps poking you and let Jesus bear the pain with you until something better develops.

Disturbing French church buildings — and what we’re not building

church ruins in Lyon

Lyon was beautiful to see. But Lyon was disturbing.

But then I could probably say that about you. You are undoubtedly a beautiful, even wondrous piece of God’s art, but you are disturbing at times.

The world is so beautiful! – it stretched out mile after mile in the French countryside. I saw it. But it is also disturbing.

In Lyon on a beautiful day, we tore ourselves from the lovely view on the bridge over the Saone River and came to St. John the Baptist Cathedral in the Old City (a UNESCO site). Behind the cathedral were the remains of even older church buildings. All that remains of them are an artful arch, a remarkable baptistry surviving from the 4th century and stubby markers of where there used to be walls (my pic above).

St. John the Baptist Cathedral church building in Lyon
Those niches below the rose window used to have statues

The French Revolution

What had remained of the churches of Saint Stephen and the Holy Cross in Lyon were reportedly destroyed during the French Revolution (1789-92) like so many old church buildings were torn down and often used as quarries after they were nationalized. The still-standing cathedral was spared because it was turned into a “temple of reason.” Somehow the ancient baptistry survived. You can read more about the destruction of church buildings here. We saw even more ambitious vengeance when we visited Cluny, a huge, bucket-list, historic complex reduced to almost nothing. When we visited Fontenay Abbey, founded by St. Bernard (also on my bucket list), we saw it stripped to the bones.

After visiting Versailles and Fontainebleau, I could understand even more why people wanted to destroy the ancien regime with its fully-politicized and oppressive church. I have never really been comfortable with most churches dominated by powerful men. I could not even spend a full day at the famous Taize last week, when I realized how women were marginalized. The need for change felt like an emotional itch that needed to be scratched then and now.

As I wandered through history, I could not help wondering what the revolutionaries are doing to the present-day church once I got a personal look at what they did in the past. It did not work out that well in France.  After a decade of hysteria, villainy, murder and ineptitude the French Revolution ended up with Napoleon, ensconced again at Fontainebleau. The U.S. might be ripe for the same kind of thing and install Trump or DeSantis. Meanwhile, its fully-politicized church, largely listening to Fox News (or not), would keep tearing itself apart as surely as people literally tore down stones in Lyon.

missing statues heads on the church in Lyon
A couple of survivors got their heads chopped off.

The age of the Huguenots

The Church of John the Baptist in Lyon is striking. When you look at it more closely, you realize it has also been struck. That fact speaks to me.

One of its founders was St. Irenaeus (b. 130!). By 450, a bishop built a big building there. By 1079 the archbishop there was named the “Primate of all the Gauls.” The present building was begun in 1180 and called complete in 1476 (these buildings are all a constant rehab project). Some people blame the missing and defaced statues on the cathedral on an outbreak of Huguenot  looting in 1562. Huguenots were statue-hating Protestants like John Calvin (92 miles away in Geneva who died in 1564). They were kin to the Puritans in England and the U.S. There is a lot of church history in your face as you face the church, which left me with more questions than answers.

The church I experienced for most of my adulthood feels a bit looted, of late, from the right and the left of the political spectrum. Part of that is me being old. But more, I feel violated because, just like the Huguenots and like the Revolutionaries who followed them, reaction to the horrible excesses and corruption of the rulers these days is more about tearing down the past than building a sustainable future. I told one of my guides we spent some time in the church during one of our tourist stops and he gave me a pitying and puzzled look. I said, “We’re like that.” But he was surprised anyone still is. The French church has never recovered from the Huguenot wars and the Revolution. I have a lot of friends who aren’t recovering very well right now, too.

I am disappointed over how often the newly-powerful keep doing the same damned things that are as plain as the nose on your saint’s face — chipped right off a Lyon statue! The new regime often throws the baby out with the dirty bath water when they throw a statue into the Saone. (I am not sure anyone did that but those statues are somewhere!). Yet another leader turns out to be a sexual predator and it is off with everyone’s head and burn some books. The ever-present powermongers get a whiff of how they could use your convictions for further profit or fame and we all think being at loggerheads is normal and every institution needs purifying (often in the name of tolerance and intolerance).

What Church are we building?

It seems I must have visited most of the French church buildings by now — they leave them open, so we go in to pray or sing. They were often beautiful – so regularly beautiful you begin to take for granted the art, skill and passion that went into creating them. But they were disturbing. Empty. Echoing with violence and corruption as well as with praise. I met God repeatedly and wonderfully in them – but they have a lot yet to teach me.

We are in the process of making ruins of the 20th century church. I admit to abandoning it once Ronald Reagan got a hold of it. I probably threw out some babies. There is a lot worthy of reform and I hope we are doing it somehow. But I can’t see what we are building. The lovely things so many people attempted to build in the last 20 years are being swept away for what?

History has a lot to teach us about what creates faith lived out in community. The French revolutionaries thought history began with them so they missed some lessons. I can sympathize with them, though, and I feel the fervor of people who want change now — when it comes to racism, sexism, gun proliferation and climate policy, among many things, so do I. But Jesus is the same yesterday, today and forever.

The new movement of the Spirit takes lament, commitment, action

On May 4th I begged a piece of paper from Gwen to take notes at the Jesus Collective Partner Summit. One would think a serious partner would be prepared to codify his marching orders! At least Gwen came prepared to move with the movement.

A Spirit-inspired vision still being born

I really should have had a few sheets of paper because there were many good things to collect! It was nice to be among a group of committed, often brilliant partners from around the world who are united by a vision for keeping a spiritual ball rolling. Beyond the reformation of Eurocentric, capitalist-bound, principle-centered, power-struggling, often narcissistic and male Christianity, there is a movement of Jesus-centered people who see another way to be the church. It is not a new way, but after hundreds of years of European domination, it seems new. Jesus Collective is working on a practical expression of the ancient-future way of the cross and resurrection that transcends all the boundaries of the world. If you explore the website you’ll probably get an idea of what’s going on. The website won’t tell you everything however; the new zeitgeist of the Body of Christ these days is better caught by experiencing like mindedness in relationship than taught with more left-brained schooling.

I enjoyed the relating but I was also schooled during the Partner Summit and Unite22. Jesus Collective has a unique view of the future because it was born right before the pandemic hit. Life these days is kind of “before the lockdowns” and “after a million Americans died.” It was not the most advantageous time to start something, but Jesus Collective started. Then the pandemic hit and then the revelation of Bruxy Cavey’s infidelity torpedoed the Meeting House which had been the collective’s incubator. The megachurch is still the incubator, only it is more like a NICU in a Kharkiv hospital. Since the inaugural in-person gathering I attended in 2019, the whole constituency has been traumatized and reformed. I was schooled about that, too.

What to do when the movement meets resistance

But there was so much more happening among the Jesus Collective than trauma! I came away stimulated and inspired – and convicted to keep the ball rolling! I can’t vouch for my notes, since my handwriting is often indecipherable. But I am still moved by three points I noted from a speaker I can’t remember. He or she was trying to answer the question, “What do we do now?” If there is still a movement of the Spirit alive in the world, how do we not only move with it but move it along when we are exhausted and beset with overwhelming circumstances? Jesus shows us a way. Here are three elements of staying on the way and showing the way with Him: lament, commitment, and action.

Jesus wept / lament

As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. – Luke 19-41-2

My Christian psychotherapy clients, especially, often call lamenting “griping.” They are prone to say, “I shouldn’t be having these feelings” or “I am not sure I deserve to be sad when Ethiopians are on the verge of starvation.” Jesus did not talk himself out of crying. He did not shut himself down because people would see his despair and despise him for his vulnerability.

Emmanuel Katangole, from the east of Congo, justly became more famous during the pandemic because he has written so eloquently about the necessity and the power of lament. He says:

Lament is an invitation to see reality through the eyes of the most vulnerable, and to name and admit what is broken.

In this historical moment, only through the practice of lament can we imagine a new and better future. More than a personal spiritual practice, lament has potent political implications in three ways: connecting us to the oppressed, telling the truth to governments, and transcending partisan political borders.

I believe there is a new movement of the Spirit at work in the world, just as there is tragedy and evil afoot. If we are being reduced to repentance, that is a good thing. Lament is a positive spiritual response to our shame and hopelessness. Tears often water the seeds of a better future. If we can be moved, maybe we can energize a movement.

Edvard Munch, Melancholy (1894).

Jesus asked, “Do you want to be well?” / commit

When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be made well?” – John 5:6

I asked one of my clients that question once. They had to think about it. Their aloneness had come to feel like their safe place. The vengeance they wanted over their abusers felt more important than health. The small space of control they felt they owned seemed violated by the question. I don’t think we should underestimate just how profound a question the Lord asks us, “No, really. Do you want to be made well?”

Taking the Lord’s outstretched hand is just the beginning. The man who was healed had to relearn to walk and experience being “the guy who was lame for 38 years.” He had to change how he saw himself and keep deciding to be well. At the end of the day we have to make a commitment to life. We often have to fight for our lives. Together we’re called to fight for the life of the world too.

I think Americans are so accustomed to their imperial ease that hysteria breaks out if gas costs a dollar more a gallon. Filipinos just elected the son of their former dictator because authoritarianism looks good if it promises some semblance of order. Even churches are adopting the authoritarian playbook. In these reactions, I don’t see a commitment to wellness, just control: I see little of the Spirit, mostly fear. I know a lot of Americans and a few Filipinos; many of them are exhausted, traumatized and often numb – and a lot of them are Jesus followers! For the first time, many of us may be able to relate to the man who couldn’t get to the pool. But here comes Jesus asking us for a commitment to him, not just to our own capacity. If we can get up and move again, maybe we can stoke the spiritual movement we all need so desperately.

Jesus taught: love God and your neighbor / act

Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. – Matthew 22:36-8

When I went to the Jesus Collective Partner Summit, I admit I was wary. So it was moving when many people convinced me I was loved and accepted, even valued.  I have my own trauma that makes me suspicious; I’m still recovering from a love breakdown in my former church. Quite often I need to remind myself to act love, do love, see love as my daily task. Otherwise I might just do me; I might get in the habit of being suspicious.

The leaders of the church where I completed my pastoring shunned my entire family because they imagined we were a threat to them. It was a classic cut off. Since we all still live in the same town and still care about our old friends, the absurdity of it all comes to fruit when people get married, have children, etc. and throw parties. The people remaining in the church have to wonder if it is OK to still love us and include us. They aren’t sure why, but we are out and they are supposed maintain “boundaries.” I hope we will all be back together in love one day. But until then, loving hurts. It is the task the Lord gives me as much as a delight I experience.

There are still people in Philly who operate according to the old redlining boundaries from the past. Family systems still don’t talk to descendants of a “black sheep.” Whole protestant denominations still recoil when something seems like it might be “Catholic.” For some reason the Supreme Court will sacrifice the peace of the country to overturn the right to privacy. There is a lot of broken love built right into the infrastructure. I may feel like I’m making bricks without straw, but we all need to bring at least one brick to the building of the beloved community every day. If we can move another brick onto that vision, maybe we can nurture the movement of the Spirit springing up in the strangest places.

We are called to get up every day and do the work of love. We are not called to get up every day and wish someone would do the work of loving me or get up angry about the people who don’t do the work. The desire and demand to love may flood some days with the tears of lament – let it come, let it sink in, and move with the Spirit anyway. The desire and demand to love will make us wonder if it is worth it to be well since well is hard — listen to the “yes” of the spirit resonating with the truth “You are beloved and valued” then make the commitment.

Let’s love others because we are lovers not because everything is working out well. Love is a feeling that becomes a task. Love is a desire that can’t help but become an action. Love is Jesus looking over Jerusalem with tears, reaching out his hand in compassion and challenge, getting himself killed, giving his life and forgiveness freely and in hope of resurrection. The Jesus Collective, in league with people all over the world, senses a new movement of raw, Jesus-y love like that spreading around the ever-warming globe, changing and rebuilding lives and churches. Maybe like never before we have a chance to bring good news to everyone in an era full of bad news and broken institutions.

Overwhelm: The feeling and what we can do about it

More and more clients seem to come into a session feeling overwhelmed. In fact, they use the word in the new way we have begun to use it to describe their feeling: “overwhelm.”

I can relate to experiencing overwhelm. The last few years have been the most overwhelming I can remember — maybe for you, too! As for me, I transitioned out of my long-time pastoring work – that would cause anyone some trouble. I was defrauded by a contractor. I moved to a new home. I lost my church community. And, of course, we are still in a pandemic and the country is unraveling – at least that’s what David Brooks says. And then the next climate disaster is in the offing! I have had my peculiar version of the overwhelm most of us are experiencing.

I am feeling OK now, but I am really concerned about those who don’t feel OK. I think they are multiplying and their feeling of overwhelm might be deepening. We have had two years of pandemic isolation to heighten issues we might normally handle well. We need to check on each other. Check on the vulnerable even if you feel vulnerable. We all need to find more community life.

Royal & the Serpent gets it

In June of 2020 Royal and the Serpent recorded a song which depicts the feeling of overwhelm just right. I can’t help but believe the 11 million people who have viewed it feel some kind of community with each other as an artist musically names what they are experiencing.

FYI, Royal and the Serpent’s stage name translates to “Me + My Ego.”  Her given name is Ryan Santiago. She struck a chord with many of her listeners on YouTube:

Youraverageartist commented: “I feel like the beat represents the buildup to an anxiety attack. The beat gets faster and more intense as they sing about being overwhelmed, and then when the beat drops into the wild electric music, that represents the anxiety attack. Then everything is calm and back to normal. You realize that everything around you isn’t any different. These attacks normally aren’t very physical, they happen in your head, although it doesn’t always show to the outside.”

Check up on people who might be feeling this. They might like to talk to you rather than a YouTube audience.

booksandboots commented: I’m 28 and I’ve known about my anxiety since I was 8. This is the first song I’ve ever heard that really captures what it feels like. For me, it’s never gone away. It’s a part of who I am, for whatever reason. Perhaps an evolutionary response to a threat that isn’t there?…

I’m happy to say I haven’t had a true panic attack in over a year, something I never, ever thought would be possible. I had just accepted that was my life: panic attacks every day or multiple times a day. Frozen. Silent….

It also helps to listen to your anxiety, as strange as that sounds. To ask it questions like, “What are you really upset about? Is it that person standing too close, can you do something about it? If you can’t, can you breathe slowly and deeply and try some grounding exercises? If that doesn’t work, can you try to drink some water to occupy your mind in this moment, focusing on nothing else but the water? You can do this. I believe in you.”

And, as juvenile as it sounds, I speak to my anxiety as if it were a child. In a good way. I don’t think of my anxiety as some monster in the closet. It’s just a chemical imbalance that believes it’s helping me stay safe. I explain what reality is to my anxiety and comfort it the same way I would my own child. If my anxiety is here to stay, then we better get used to each other. I can’t walk around hating that part of myself because it doesn’t make the anxiety go away, it makes it worse.

Tender people who are bravely looking OK might not be. Given what we are all facing, who isn’t feeling a bit overwhelmed? I know I have needed to tell my story to people who care about me. Telling it diminished the power of the loss and the trauma. But more loss and trauma is likely to come my way. We need community to face it all.

Signs of overwhelm

Sometimes (and maybe over a period of time), the intensity of our feelings outmatches our ability to manage them. At some point you will probably feel overwhelmed by negative emotions, such as anger, fear, or guilt. Some of us will experience mania and be overwhelmed by euphoria.

If you feel overwhelm, it might be hard to pinpoint why. Usually a collection of stressors contributes rather than one particular event. Your emotions may bleed into seemingly unrelated parts of your life until you are “all stirred up.” Emotional overwhelm may be caused by stress, traumatic life experiences, relationship issues, and much more.

Here are some common signs of overwhelm:

  • You have a big reaction to a small situations. For example, you may panic when you can’t find your keys.
  • You feel physically ill or fatigued and don’t know why.
  • You have trouble focusing or completing simple tasks.
  • You find yourself withdrawing from friends and family.
  • Your emotions color your perception of everything. For example, your grief may keep you sad even during pleasant occasions.

Causes of overwhelm

When we are stressed by the small things in our collection, we might say to ourselves, “This is dumb!” Nevertheless, small things often add up to overwhelm. For instance, it is common for a simple things-to-do list to hijack someone’s brain. That’s because your brain might not see a to-do list, but see the threat of scarcity: not enough time, not enough energy, not enough magical ability to fit everything into 24 hours. Or it might see the threat of failing, the threat of disappointing others, the threat of feeling like you’re not doing enough or might not even be enough.

We react to these feelings the same way we do with other threats. We fight, flee, or freeze. That’s true whether the threat is a bus hurtling toward us or our responsibilities  make us feel like we can’t catch our breath.

Usually, we land somewhere between freeze and flight, numbed out. We avoid. We dig in our heels and resist. If we’re at work we might procrastinate: make a call, do tasks that don’t matter, call in sick. If we are at home we might binge-watch Netflix, stay up late reading things that don’t require thought, sneak off for some porn, buy something on Amazon, or scroll through Instagram.

Remember, your emotions may get overloaded by a single stressor, like surviving a traumatic accident or violence, or losing a loved one. But overwhelm can also occur due to the pile up of many smaller stressors. For example, missing your bus may not feel like too big of a deal by itself. But if you’ve been fighting with your family, having trouble sleeping, and are hungry from skipping breakfast, a missed bus can be the proverbial “last straw” of the day.

A therapist can be a big help. Even if you are in therapy, everyone still needs some community. Check up on people. We are all experiencing the same big things bearing down on you. What’s more, the latest trauma may have dislodged some unprocessed memories. Everyone needs a safe place to tell their story.

Six ways to deal with overwhelm right now.

  1. Ground yourself in the present using the 5-4-3-2-1 technique.

When your emotions are flooding, your mind is getting foggy, or your skin is getting clammy, this technique could be a way to get your feet back on the ground and your mind cleared. It’s a classic tool everyone needs in their backpack. Donate it to someone who needs it.

5 – Look around and name five things you can see, right now, from where you are.

4 – Listen and name four things you can hear.

3 – Notice three things you can touch, like the pages of a nearby book or the feeling of your feet on the carpet.

2 – Next come two smells: Breathe in the pages of a book or the citrus scent of the candle you lit.

1 – Finally, name something you can taste: a sip of cold water will do, or even just the taste of your own mouth.

This does two things to interrupt the overwhelm. First, it grounds you in your senses and, more importantly, the present moment. Second, keeping track of the counting and working your way through your senses interrupts spinning thoughts.

  1. Clean up your immediate surroundings.

The phrase “outer order, inner calm” is popular for a reason. When you’re feeling overwhelmed, tidying the area around you restores order to a little corner of your universe and allows you to move forward.

You don’t need to redo the office or redecorate the house. Restrict yourself to things within arm’s reach. Stack loose papers, put caps on rogue pens, wipe away dust or grime. The resulting order will help you feel like you’ve accomplished something and allow you to focus. One time we all went over and cleaned someone’s whole house with them just to give them a boost and allow their emotions to settle and let them feel part of the friendship circle.

  1. Ruthlessly prioritize.

Cut everything that should be done and stick to things that need to get done now. This is harder than it looks for some people since if they change their “shoulds” they will feel disloyal to their family or feel like they are condemning their past self. If someone trusts you, they might let you help them sort.

  1. Stop accidentally multitasking

Trying to work from home and simultaneously keep an eye on the kids, holding a conversation while the TV is on, eating lunch at your desk, leaving your email open while you work, or simply keeping your smartphone at hand 24/7 are examples of things that force you to transition your attention (and then transition it back) hundreds of times a day.

Multitasking works about as well as texting while driving—which is to say, it doesn’t. So if your nerves are frayed, mend them by doing a singular thing at a time. When you’re feeling less frantic, you can go back to googling Beyonce’s net worth while making a sandwich. But until then, single-task, single-task, single-task. You might help your friend do this by asking them to take a walk around the block with you or eat lunch together — community building is also a single-minded task; giving someone else attention and receiving it is a natural way to heal from the pressures of life.

  1. Take the next tiny step.

When you feel frozen in the proverbial headlights of what is bearing down on you, think only of the next tiny step. The next step can be very tiny—only you have to know that you’re inching forward by thinking “Okay, now click on the folder. Now open the document. Now start reading.” Or “Sit up, Put your feet on the floor. Breathe in goodness. Stand up. Stretch slowly” all on the way to starting your day. I am often grateful when someone calls me and I get a chance to tell them what I am planning to do. Just talking to them gets me out of whatever rut I am in and often encourages me to take the next step.

  1. Radically accept what you cannot do or control.

This is the basic stance of faith. We stand in grace and we can turn into the reality of it at any time. God is with us and loves us. You can strategize, organize, and hack all you want, but at some point, you will run into something you can’t do or control. When you do, the only thing to do is to radically accept. Trust Jesus and be one of those good people who can be trusted to listen and care.

Radical acceptance doesn’t mean throwing in the towel. It means allowing for uncertainty and uncontrollability, without struggling like you’re trapped or complaining as if bad things should never happen to you. It is keeping on with what you can do instead of dwelling on what you can’t. (Thanks to Jade Wu).

When you get behind the wheel of a car, you radically accept that a reckless driver may hit you no matter how well you drive. Yet you still do it because you want to get from point A to B quickly. When you fall in love, you radically accept that your heart may get trampled on. Yet you do anyway because love is worth the risk. When you simply can’t meet a deadline without compromising your mental health, you can radically accept you’ll have to be late and you may disappoint someone, because your well-being is worth it.

Just telling a story, thinking things through, letting some feelings settle down or pass through might be enough to deal with overwhelm. Doing it together with Jesus is undoubtedly even better. There are a lot more resources to apply to feeling overwhelm, of course. Your therapist or trusted friend or mentor can help. This post was mainly a means to give you some space to feel some hope and experience some care. I write because I care. I think we need to keep finding ways to check in on each other and build some community. It is an overwhelming time.

Should I forgive them if they never offer an apology?

The Washington Post surprised me the other day with an op-ed featuring Warren G. Harding – the first president after World War I, most-remembered for the corruption in his administration. That’s him throwing out the first pitch. It was a weird week. First, I liked Dick Cheney, of all people, for accompanying Liz to the Jan. 6 commemoration. Then I read WaPo and ended up admiring the super-capitalist, Teapot Dome president!

I did not know that Harding forgave Eugene V. Debs! He commuted the sentence of the  Socialist who ran against him from prison! Debs’ crime was doubting-out-loud the validity of WWI — he called it a diabolical capitalist war. I guess I would have voted for him. However, he got no affection from the Woodrow Wilson administration. They threw Debs in jail for his speech with a dubious application of the Espionage Act. When Harding followed Wilson he decided, against the advice of his advisors, to forgive Debs. He even made sure the traitor came to the White House on his way home from prison, so he could meet him and form some connection.

Biden has been acting out a similar public drama for us all year. He’d love to forgive people. But he took the gloves off on Epiphany and laid out Trump. For most of the year he has been restrained, trying hard to bridge the divide. But maybe that’s over. Are you similarly conflicted? Do you rehearse snappy things you would say to your enemies in your head — the zingers you will never get a chance to deliver? What do you do when your offender will not apologize, much less reconcile?

Have you decided how you are going to handle the people who have undermined you, lied about you and then blamed you for what they did to you? A lot of us are in a lot of drama. All over the country divorces have gone up, families have been divided over politics, churches have split and pastors have resigned. You can’t look at the news, if you dare, without someone worrying about American “democracy” – which Eugene V. Debs did not think much of when he was jailed for saying something that 900,000 people voted for.

It can be hard to forgive sometimes, but if Warren Harding can do it, maybe we can too.

What if they don’t say they are sorry?

This is always the big question when it comes to forgiveness. What if the person who hurt us is not sorry? It is not uncommon for someone to protest when forgiveness is suggested:

I can’t let my guard down. That would be surrendering and acting like they were justified in hurting me. They would get away with their crime! I would be just as vulnerable to more of the abuse I just suffered.

I will not forgive until the other person: 1) knows that wrong was done; 2) feels an inner sorrow for doing it; 3) apologizes to me; 4) and makes amends. Then I’ll know it is safe to forgive and enter back into the relationship.

Most of us are taught to apologize from a young age along the lines of those four conditions.  We bite a sibling, say something cruel, push someone around, and some well-meaning adult intervenes and tells us, “Now, say you’re sorry.” Half-hearted apologies ensue along with forced hugs and we move on. But something changes as we age. Apologies are harder to come by and pain cuts a little deeper than “She took my Sports Diva!”

What are you supposed to do when someone intentionally hurts you, rips your heart wide open, and then leaves you to pick up the pieces? What if they move on with their lives, with no well-meaning adult to come along and demand they apologize?

From our playground lessons, we’ve been conditioned to think that forgiveness follows an apology. But things change and people forget how to apologize. We protest and we hear “That’s your problem.” We get the unspoken message we’re wrong for being hurt. But living wronged with that prickly disconnection installed is a recipe for bitterness and it might even make us sick.

When hurt remains unforgiven, when the memory stays unprocessed, it sits in our hearts as if it is still happening. We wait for an apology in order to get some relief. Do you have anyone on whom you are still waiting? Is it fairly easy to get all worked up when their face pops into your mind or someone speaks about them fondly or you see them succeed? Jessica Harris wrote:

“My dad left our family when I was in elementary school. The pain caused by his abandonment ran deep. I couldn’t wrap my head around the fact that someone I loved could hurt me so badly when I didn’t do anything to deserve it. Then, as I got older, I couldn’t wrap my head around the fact that someone I loved could hurt me so badly and not care.

That ate away at my heart for years. The hurt remained unresolved as I waited for this man to return to my life and apologize for wrecking it. I thought my anger was my power. My ability to never forget was going to ensure I would never get hurt again. It was how I protected my heart.

That anger bled over into my other relationships. I became angry in general, always blaming it on my dad. If he would just admit he was wrong, my life would be better.”

I couldn’t tell that same story.  But I have definitely had to work through similar hurts in the last few years. You probably have had some hurts too. My clients certainly share them every day: a trauma that is lodged in the memory and won’t go away, a loved one who betrayed their trust, an unscrupulous salesman or contractor who swindled them, a family member who hurt them but has since passed on. They still feel people who cut them deep but have never once breathed an apology. You might feel you have a right to hold a grudge, yourself.

What if anger is not strength?

Bitterness is an enemy of resilience. It is the opposite of joy isn’t it? It is the taste of poison.  You cannot be strong and move forward with your life while still dragging around chests full of bitterness from your past like you’re Jacob Marley.

What kids rarely learn is that forgiveness is more for the forgiver than for the offender. Forgiveness is not, “I am OK with what you did.” It isn’t even, “I accept your apology.” It is, “I am not going to hold this in me or against you anymore.”

The point of forgiveness and apologies is ultimately reconciliation. An apology is extended by the person who committed the hurt. They need to do that to get free. Forgiveness is extended by the person who was hurt. It frees them more than the offender. Then two free people who have freed one another can move on to work out how to live together in love.

Even if you can’t get to reconciliation you can still forgive, and bring closure to a hurt. You can do that even if there is no apology. If you’re too hurt to forgive right away, take time to scab over. But try not to hold on too long. The anger you nurse is just the hurt hanging on. Being angry is not being strong. Forgiving brings strength that lets us really heal and move forward with life without waiting for someone to let us out of the bitterness prison.

Go ahead and forgive

Forgiveness is uncommon enough that it is actually studied. You can be a forgiveness expert.  A growing body of research shows that best forgiveness practices are about people exercising the moral virtue of forgiveness even if there is no justice or even hope of reconciliation. One tries to be good, within reason, toward an offending person. As a result, the forgiver reduces their anger, anxiety and depression and improves their self-esteem and hope (Robert Enright). A good reason to forgive is to protect your health!.

We dare not conflate forgiveness and reconciliation. People often do, but we dare not. Forgiveness is not dependent on reconciliation, restitution or justice. The offer of forgiveness can be unconditional, not dependent on the other’s response at all, including an apology. Sounds like Jesus, right? Reconciliation, when at least one party is deeply and unfairly hurt, is the fruit of forgiveness and apology and is conditional; it depends on how the offending party or parties understand their hurtful ways and change. Sounds like what Jesus would like to build, right?

A forgiver is motivated by their desire to be rid of resentment and act as good as is possible  toward an offending person. If that person has no inner sorrow, never intends to apologize or to make amends, you don’t act like they do. Yet, you can still have the intention to reconcile if the person changes and interaction becomes safe. You even can show an outward quality of forgiveness, for example, by not talking disparagingly about the offender to others. It is working out Romans 12:18: “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” If a person keeps abusing you, you can struggle for peace instead of just struggling against hurt. You don’t need to bear their responsibility.

Why not be healthy? If you reject forgiving because you conflate it with reconciliation, you  deprive yourself of a chance to recover, lead a healthy psychological life and even a healthy relational life with others (if not necessarily with the offending person). Deep anger from injustices can lead to a lack of trust in general, thwarting potentially uplifting relationships.

How we think about forgiveness is important. If we make the mistake of waiting for an apology or holding out for an ideal reconciliation, we allow the offending person or a passing act to dominate us for a long time, maybe even for a lifetime if the wound is deep enough. Forgiving and reconciling are not the same. You are free to forgive, if you choose, even if someone refuses to apologize.

Parker Palmer and the trouble with autonomy

The psychological work of exercising healthy autonomy is challenging when it is seated in individualism and seeded with identity politics.

Part of a “heritage ride”

According to the Richmond Co Daily Journal, Jacob Mumford decided to hold a “Heritage Ride” after seeing news reports about calls to ban the Confederate flag. He said about the demonstration, “It don’t represent racism. It just represents my heritage, being raised in the South, Southern pride. That’s all it means to me.” He was trying to be someone, the newspaper was reporting it, the country was protecting it.

Mumford was reacting to the great cleansing that began after Dylan Roof murdered nine loving people in an historic Black church in Charleston. In 2015 the National Park Service ordered all Confederate flags and merchandise to be removed from all parks under the agency’s direction, including Fort Sumter and Gettysburg. By 2021 the massive Robert E. Lee statue in Richmond was removed, symbolizing the ongoing deconstruction of white supremacy intertwined with everything American.

The untwining is far from over and the pickups still parade. Alongside the Confederate flag a driver often has the yellow Gadsen flag, as in the picture above. It is the flag with “Don’t read on me” on it. “Don’t tread on me” has been an assertion of national autonomy for over 200 years, and now personal, pickup autonomy. I saw the same display in Lansdale the other day.

Christopher Gadsen designed his anti-British flag in the run-up to the Revolutionary War. The timber rattlesnake on it was something of a Colonial-era meme, evidently created by Benjamin Franklin. The snake is unique to the Eastern U.S. and came to symbolize a new country ready to bite anyone who stepped on it. The symbol stuck around. You can get a specialty license plate with the Gadsen flag on it in nine states. You can say your license plate is about “heritage,” but Gadsden was a slave owner and trader, who built Gadsden’s Wharf in Charleston, South Carolina. As many as 40% of enslaved Africans who were brought to the U.S. first arrived there. You can say it is about southern pride, but don’t leave out the white supremacy and dread people feel when the pickups parade. I felt some fear when I saw one on the Turnpike!

Around the Time the Philadelphia Union was using the flag in 2006, the “Tea Party,” anti-tax Republicans began using it. They used it to communicate the U.S. government had become the oppressor threatening the liberties (I would say the unhealthy sense of autonomy) of its own citizens. By the time it was prominently displayed at the January attack on the U.S. Capitol, white men were flying it on their pickups to communicate they would not be replaced, not be tread on – especially by Blacks and not by immigrants “flooding the borders.”

Fighting for freedom

In the United States, liberty is life. Like the slave-capitalism that dominates it, the powerful dole out freedom to their tribe. But even the lowliest feel a taste for “freedom,”  for individual rights, to be one’s unencumbered self able to make as much money as they can. Even Barack Obama and Bruce Springsteen, whose great wealth and power make them free, echoed this urge in the title their recent book Renegades: Born in the USA. As he was selling the book via NPR, Obama said,

So the truth is that either we tell each other stories that allow us to see each other as fellow travelers and humans, or we have conflict and clash, and whoever gets the most power wins. And I would argue that at its best, America’s been able – with a pretty major exception in the Civil War – to try to make progress and perfect the union without resort solely to violence, solely to power.

I keep wondering if the authors were riffing on Taylor Swift’s “Renegade” in which she sings, “You wouldn’t be the first renegade to need somebody.” They might have subtitled their book, “Meditations on our recovery from ‘Don’t tread on me.'”

I connect the search for freedom in all its perverse and noble forms as part of our drive to achieve the healthy autonomy we need as humans to become our true selves. It is the natural movement Paul describes as leaving the old self behind and taking on the new self restored in God’s image. We all need to have an experience of I AM in relation to God just like Jesus demonstrates His place in the community of the Trinity. The Gadsen flag states “I am an expression of power” the Jesus-follower insists “I am an expression of right relationship with Love.”

Nurturing good autonomy

How we do psychotherapy and relate in other ways requires many choices about how to handle everyone’s need for autonomy and our perverse lust for power.

I think “good autonomy” is when a person gets a sense of their true self operating freely. It is like the experience of getting the training wheels off the bike, feeling your own balance, moved by your own power, and even pedaling out of your parents sight and control. It is the freedom Paul writes about in Galatians: a life not defined by law, but confident in one’s reality as a person made in God’s image, the beloved of God whose life is eternal in Christ. I think of that autonomy as “I am-ness.”

There is a dangerous autonomy, however, lurking in the word. Nomos is Greek for “law”. Auto-nomos mean “makes its own laws.”  It would be great if Palestinians had this political right. It is not so great when individuals assume they are a law unto themselves and must be. One of my grandsons calls his brother the “dictator from the second grade” because he does think he should make all the rules. I think that is an example of what dangerous autonomy can do to community. When we, as therapists, parents or leaders protect someone’s autonomy to be themselves and make their own rules  as if their freedom should be inviolable, we do them a disservice. We may condemn them to be alone, going their own way according to their undisturbed thinking and feeling. We can hope God is disturbing them, which is usually the case, but the weaker among us could get the impression they are on their own and should be, even though they are connected to various communities and are part of creation.

Protecting a person’s personal freedom as a primary goal might be like giving them a bike so they can figure out how to ride it on their own. Personally, I was a bike-stealer as a child. I stole the neighbor’s bike and rode to kindergarten (which was illegal). I parked it in the rack right in front of the principal’s glass-paneled door. I stole my brother’s big bike when I was not tall enough to reach the pedals and crashed it into the curb. My father liked my gall but had to punish me anyway. My parents often left me alone to figure stuff out — and I did. But I also felt alone, which is worse than not figuring things out. And their neglect/appreciation for my independent spirit may have made me a little thief. It is in mutuality we thrive. Subject to a spirit of individualism in the U.S. and painfully alone, a lot of people can’t even give a full body hug because it feels like a violation or improper. What they need more than autonomy is to attach to God and others.

The best autonomy is mutual

The dialogue in the Bible about autonomy is all about having a relationship with God, first of all, then loving others. Jesus followers teach each other to accept every person and love them as they are right now. Such teaching includes freedom but also includes mutuality. My deepest freedom comes from right relationship. In love, my present limitations and boundaries are accepted and maybe even admired. In love, none of us are a law to another; we are all gifts who should be respected.

One of my psychotherapy clients wondered out loud if I knew a lot of thirtysomethings the other day (which I do). He doubted people could connect like I described healthy attachment. But I persist. Parker Palmer helps me persist. He is a gift from the Quaker homeland in Philadelphia. He added to the spirit of what I am trying to say in his well-known essay A Place Called Community. When he wrote his piece in 1977 I was in seminary and about to experiment in autonomy-defying intentional community – which was an irreplaceable education in love, truth and growth in the Spirit.

In his essay, Palmer says:

  1. If we promote autonomy in the individualist, psychotherapeutic and political sense we set up a society of dissociated individuals most suited to authoritarian government
  2. Mental and spiritual health is never just about oneself. It happens in our common suffering in the web of humanity. We build community to encourage health.
  3. Connection always breeds problems. Not connecting and leaving people alone in their autonomy creates even deeper problems.

When you fly the Gadsen flag or react to the flag as if it has power, you might be surrendering your healthy autonomy. Like Obama worries, we could get stuck in a perpetual fight for individual freedom. True renegades end up in friendship and mutual creativity, they appreciate one another’s true selves, and so undermine the endless power struggles of the world.

Why are the Post-Covid regimes so cruel?

A few leaders of my church were afraid this post tries say something to them without naming them.  Not so. The entry is directed at me as much as anyone; I lead things, too. My point is that all of us are tempted to be cruel in the post-Covid age of Trump and act the four ways I list. I need to watch it, and if you think you need to watch it, you are probably right. 

Some questions beg for an answer, even though the answer is not easy or even welcome. But I have been asking the title to this piece all week: Why are the Post-Covid regimes so cruel? Here is some of what I hear.

Donald Trump is one big reason everyone is more cruel. Trump may be forever pre-Covid – since he may think the virus is fake news, his recovery from it notwithstanding. But he has greatly influenced what is taking root in the world and may bloom. You run into his disciples all the time. They are cruel.

For instance, Trump’s response to the death of Colin Powell last week was very cruel. I was going to say “breathtakingly” cruel, but he, of all of today’s wicked actors, has done so much to normalize cruelty we all feel a new license to take someone out, to maliciously undermine someone, to build walls against enemies, and to make exclusionary laws. It is all normal. His wickedness no longer takes our breath away. You probably saw Trump’s response, since he is the king of “all publicity is good publicity” and he horned his way into the national honors afforded Powell. I don’t want to repeat it, but you can see it here. It was cruel.

Infamous border patrol picture

Trump is not alone. The country is filled with policies and practices that require people to be cruel. For instance, in a couple of weeks I will be at the southern border with MCC folks. I know I will meet people full of love there. But that love will be more evident because it contrasts with the visible and relentless cruelty of the government.

I am asking the question because of Donald Trump and the border. As a country we are attacked from within and hemmed in from without by a siege of cruelty that is affecting how we think and treat each other. Just witness the incredible popularity of Squid Game.

But more, I am asking the question that needs to be asked because I am seeing the cruel impact of new, post-Covid regimes, inside the church and out, which impact people I know and love: my clients, fellow church members and friends around the world.

Somehow the upheaval of Covid has loosened a new need among a new generation to reform (hopefully, but at least deconstruct) any culture or organization that does not meet a new set of standards. Their passion is often cruel in its application. In so many organizations I hear about, relationships are frayed, leaders are strangely authoritarian, and dialogue is unusually vicious. Here are four stories remembered during a sleepless night that illustrate some of the characteristics of the new cruelty.

Cut off, don’t reconcile

A pastor I know was trying to talk a church member into listening to the struggle of someone reeling from new, “progressive” language about race. She told her pastor, “The hell with’em. Let’m go.” Somehow the new regime has lost Howard Thurman’s way to love, like I said last week, and has decided to perfect the hate. It seems that even Christians, with their “ministry of reconciliation” have perfected the cut off.

Be secret, not transparent

I was in a small group and a pastor told us about the “parking lot meeting” his board had about him last week. In his polity, he is on the board. Outside the church, it is common for accusations to go to HR or to campus committees. The accusations may or may not be true, but sometimes before guilt is established, the accused is hounded out. The spirit of due process is going out of fashion. It is not unusual for someone to get an email notifying them in some oblique way about what happened to them behind closed doors.

Stay safe, not antifragile

In their book, The Coddling of the American Mind,  Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt describe how the new regimes of the new generation have expanded the idea of safety in ways that undermine community and cripple their own development.  They insist that we will be happier, healthier and stronger if we

  • Seek out challenges rather than eliminating or avoiding everything that “feels unsafe”
  • Free ourselves from cognitive distortion rather than always trusting our initial feelings
  • Take a generous view of others and look for nuance rather than assuming the worst about people with a simplistic us-versus-them morality.

An over-emphasis on safety makes us fragile and so in need of more safety. A realistic approach to resilience makes us antifragile, more adaptable, more immune to things that might truly harm us. A hallmark of the “be safe” mentality that took on steam in the 2010’s is a preoccupation with words that make people feel uncomfortable. The new regime protects abstract people from abstract issues, but doesn’t have enough relationship to achieve immunity from the everyday wounds of love. People end up needing to protect themselves from love.

Enact law, not grace

One of my pastor friends in the Jesus Collective ended up on the other side of a pandemic-long, zoom-based fine-tooth-combing of his church’s by-laws. That choice, in itself, is a bit breath-taking. During the hardest thing most of us have ever experienced, the leaders decided to take a hard, virus-ridden look at themselves! They re-oriented the church so much he was, effectively, eliminated and could only see a door out as the way ahead.

There is a new focus on law, and especially laws that protect identity. It is true that such protections are a must in our “slave economy,” as two of my Black clients called it last week. But it is not unusual for everything to be seen through a lens of identity and the power struggle to get a just piece of the American pie. If someone promotes the generosity of God, the rain and sun lavished on the good and bad, they might get called out as giving in to oppression. Jesus could end up looking like some sort of supremacist because he chooses to die for others while others have no choice but to die, and atonement sometimes becomes an endless repentance for collaborating with oppressive systems. One of my newest favorites, Karith Foster, suggests a better way to undo white supremacy with C.A.R.E.ing not coerceing.

Fra Angelico – Paradise

I blame Covid for much of the cruelty happening, right now. In 2023, when we have all had a year of face time, those of us who have begun again might come up with something as breathtakingly beautiful as Donald Trump is breathtakingly cruel. It is a common thought that the Bubonic Plague in Europe caused so many social, economic and religious changes it led to the emergence of the Renaissance, an amazing era for art, architecture, literature and invention. I’m holding out for that kind of movement and hoping the present regimes are precursors to it.

We are not there yet. And you may be suffering under a new regime flexing its muscles and imposing its ill-considered philosophy or theology. I wish I knew what to tell you to do. My own solution leans toward creatively suffering . I am curious about what is coming. I am going to give my gifts to build it. I want to be the presence of love in it. I am going to trust Jesus to be with us through what could be the worst and best of times.

Osheta Moore: When White Supremacy runs the stop sign

I had an odd reaction to a frightening situation the other day. The more I think about it, the more of a parable it becomes.

It was simple, actually. I had struggled to pedal up the steep park path adjacent to Ford Rd.  I got back on my bike after walking a bit, still panting. I slowly rode through the crosswalk on Chamonix. The truck I thought was certainly far enough away to see me was coming up to the stop sign. It slowed but apparently intended to run the stop sign, as usual. I yelled. The driver stopped whatever else he was doing and braked in time for me to push myself off his hood. I wobbled over to the far curb, gave a look back and almost toppled onto the sidewalk. I was furious. The driver paused then sped away.

In her book, Dear White Peacemakers Osheta Moore, who will speak more later, quotes a psychologist, Leon F. Seltzer, talking about my initial response:

“When you experience anger, it’s almost impossible not to feel like a victim, for virtually all anger can be understood as a reaction to what feels threatening or unfair to you.” — like when you expect personal care and community spirit to protect you in the sidewalk but someone runs the stop sign. Seltzer goes on, “In such instances, you feel unjustifiably attacked, taken advantage of, betrayed, violated or powerless. And your anger, essentially retaliatory in nature, serves the function of restoring to you a sense of righteousness and control, even dignity and respect.”

It is a steep road to no condemnation

True. We get angry. Then other feelings kick in. After I composed myself, I rode the short way I had left to go and my anger turned to shame. I didn’t want to tell anyone about what happened. They would say, “You should be more careful! (Stop trusting people in any way).” And I thought they might think but not say, “You might be too old to be left alone on a bike.” And one or two might say, “Did you go over and ball the guy out? You just gave him a dirty look from behind your sunglasses?” A religious voice got in there, too, “Why are you upset? You’re fine.” (Or maybe that was my mother).

I had to pause my self-condemnation to shout, basically, “The truck almost killed you!” I had another near-death experience and I condemned myself for not preventing it and for even feeling something about it. I hope you don’t do such things, but I suspect you do.

Parables don’t have morals, but the lesson I get out of this one is, “If the truck almost kills you in the crosswalk, it is not your fault.” I am prone to react as if I should be some god-like being impervious to assault and responsible to prevent evil. I’m not. A lot of Christians think they should never get angry and go directly to the shame. Sometimes I am angry and do not sin by condemning myself for what made me angry.

Osheta Moore helps us get to Beloved

My story and similar stories got applied in various ways this week.

  • If Bill Cosby is released on a technicality it doesn’t mean you lied about what he did to you or your abusers have a right to abuse.
  • If your boss installed self-interested leaders to compete for your power in the office it doesn’t mean you are a terrible executive.
  • If your wife keeps telling you you are a loser, it does not necessarily mean her feelings should be your feelings.
  • And, if you feel like every time you open your mouth about what you think or feel in this polarized society someone is likely to hold you in contempt, that does not put them in charge of your destiny.

“There is no condemnation in Christ Jesus. We are free from the laws of sin and death.”

That last truck brings me back to Osheta Moore. Thanks to the Jesus Collective for introducing us to this interesting new prophet among the many writers who rushed to their keyboards while Derek Chauvin’s case wound its way through the system.  I think she may be the best to blossom from all that sowing.

She is certainly taking on the question, “What does one do when the truck runs the stop sign?” It is a live question for Black and other people of color living under White Supremacy enacted by slave-creating capitalism. That semi’s a proven killer. I hope that truck is becoming a reality which more and more “white” people can see, as well, since it is about to run over their souls every day if they don’t dodge it (or don’t stop driving it!). OK, the parable may be getting a bit too stretched. But we are all threatened by this evil construct. Osheta Moore speaks to the White peacemakers to whom her book is written about the anger and shame associated with it:

“I don’t call anyone racist. I think for too many of you, you have worked hard to heal from toxic self-identities: fat, stupid, ugly, poor, lazy, not enough, too much. I began this book with an exploration of Belovedness and practices to help you settle into your Belovedness because I believe that only when you know you are Beloved – simply because you are human – only from that grounded place can you do anti-racism. If you believe you are a racist or you take on all the emotional, historical, and societal baggage that comes with that word, then you’re prone to unhelpful thought patterns like “I’m the worst” and “What’s the point, I can’t change anything on my own” and “I can’t believe my White pastor, friends, family members are still stuck in racist thinking, thank God I’m not like them.” None of these help you be a peacemaker.

When I think about your fragility in anti-racism, I choose to think of it as a fear response. Are you like my daughter who uses humor or bravado to deflect? Are you like my middle boy who gets quiet, retreats, and stonewalls? Are you like my oldest who ignores his anxious energy by barreling ahead, running from the trigger?”

Condemning oneself or others or absorbing condemnation will not solve the problem.  Truth in love, yes. (That’s terrifying enough!). Condemnation, no. (Can’t/won’t deal). When the White Supremacy truck threatens to run me over I blame the truck. Even if I was in the way, there was never a good reason not to love me.

We needed Osheta’s book a long time ago

I wish Osheta Moore had written her book a long time ago. I wish Gerry West and I had written it (Gerry was Circle of Hope’s first Black pastor in 1997). We were writing in terms of white repentance and black forgiveness as a way into reconciliation. We couldn’t see the way into community without those rare actions. We were probably too focused on relationships when the real truck was the system. I wish the CERJ group I trained with had written it (Christians Enacting Reconciliation and Justice); they were mediators and negotiators, Black, Hispanic, Korean and White. We might have been too focused on technique when we needed mercy. I wish the Damascus Road trainers had written it: the Mennonite trainers and consultants who pioneered anti-racism awareness and deeply influenced our foundation as an anti-racist church. They were probably too focused on curriculum and filled with good, old middle PA shame. We’ve all grown a lot over the years. When Gwen and I first named our conviction anti-racism, we usually quickly added, “That’s a project we will probably die trying to complete.”

Members of Patriot Front, a white supremacist group, marched through Center City late Saturday into early Sunday morning looking for recruits.

And here we go. Donald Trump is still unleashing a powerful defense of the White Supremacy on which the U.S. is founded and with which we are all infected, even the Beloved Community, the church. Osheta Moore stares right back at it, standing on the Sermon on the Mount and teaching its third way between the polarities of the world:

“Jesus teaches that those who try to save their lives will lose them and those who live by the sword will die by the sword. Anti-racism peacemaking is an invitation to interrogate your defenses, know your fear responses, and respond with nonviolence. White peacemaker, my prayer is you’ll do this nonviolent work within yourself, first by calling yourself a Beloved and then by acknowledging your fragility. Fragility needs to be an idea that’s neutralized. We all have our fragilities….

What would it be like to know, White Peacemaker, that you have emotional tools and reserve to attend to all the uncomfortable feelings that anti-racism brings up? You see, of all the most grounded and generous White Peacemakers I’ve encountered, they have all done one thing: they have, through therapy, dialogue, spiritual direction, meditation, and study, embraced self-compassion and cultivated self-awareness. They have practices that center them and have loving accountability. They’ve laid down the swords and shields that belong to their inner critic and inner skeptic. They’re not thinking of anti-racism as a battle; they are anti-racism peacemakers who engage with curiosity and mercy.”

That’s good theology and generous relating! I still think standing with Jesus grounded in the Sermon on the Mount is the best hope I can offer the world. Being and building the Beloved Community and pushing into the darkness with light together is the deep, deep work the church does in alliance with everyone about to get run over and with anyone ashamed of how meager their resources appeared when death rolled up.

Help for processing the pandemic: Our mental health has taken a hit

Click pic for Forbes article by Jessica Gold

Jesus followers do not have different mental health issues than everyone else. They may be more likely to use spiritual bypass to defend themselves, but they are mostly experiencing the same kind of trauma everyone else has been experiencing during this endless pandemic.

The mental health impact of the last year is a topic on the minds of many people. Especially health-care providers! Leah Blain (who inspired this post) came up with a checklist for the Inquirer last week – all the news outlets have to have one. Because our poor mental health is big news. People who do research keep verifying the troubling reality. During the pandemic depression and anxiety have increased – a lot! More people have sleep problems. Intimate partner conflicts and violence have grown. Alcohol and substance abuse have increased. And the new addiction on the block, screen addiction, has taken over territories it was just influencing before. All these issues are not going to disappear overnight.

We hope this is really getting over with

The pundits were wringing hands and blaming people for less job creation than predicted last Friday. We’re all taking the pulse of the country because we suspect more shoes are about to drop and more loved ones and loved things are about to die. At the same time, now that the age for vaccine eligibility is going down, many of us are looking forward to a post-pandemic life without masks and social distancing. I flew out to see a relative in Seattle already and went to Disney! I’m an early-adopter. I’m ready to visit friends, hug loved ones, have meetings in person, and much more.

Jumping into change injects some hope into our daily lives. But it is tempting to focus on the positives even when true recovery from the deadly 2020 is going to take some re-envisioning of the future and some processing of the past. We’re not there yet and we’re not even sure what “there” is or even sure what just happened! I try to help people emerge from trauma and trouble every day and it only seems “easy” in theory. In fact, change and recovery takes quite a long time for most people. As we emerge from the valley of the shadow of death, it will be important to consider how our experiences over the last year might be sticking with us and recognize when we or our loved ones need help.

View of the sunset from the cave inside in Thasos, Greece.

It will take some time to emerge

We all need support every day. But then there are days when we really need support. Those days are now. The full impact of a major stress event or trauma usually is not felt until weeks or months after the initial event. I often hear from clients that the grief they did not process in the brief time they were given right after the death of a loved one rose up later in disguised ways. It often appeared as part of the collection of distressing feelings that brought them to therapy. The pandemic is still stressful; it has been traumatic; we are suffused with grief (or avoiding it).

The particular stressors that came along with the pandemic resemble the kind that come with a military deployment more than resemble those that come with a onetime blow like a natural disaster or an act of violence. The prolonged stress, uncertainty, separation from loved ones, and, in many cases, trauma, kicked many of us into “survival mode.” We adapted. Most of us will need time to transition out of our high anxiety gear. For others, “survival mode” kicked us out of gear and we will need time to transition out of our depression or dissociation.

I think everyone with a soft enough heart will be dealing with the massive massive impact of massive loss – and not just the loss of time and maybe livelihood. As many as five million people in the United States are estimated to have lost at least one close relative  or friend to the coronavirus! Loss and grief are everywhere. As of January, 60% knew someone who has tested positive, 33% had a family member or close friend who had become seriously ill, 19 percent knew someone who had died. Those numbers continue to increase. That is a lot of people experiencing grief or hardening their hearts against it. Grief often comes in waves and can take time to work through, even under typical circumstances. The profound impact of so many of us being forced to grieve in isolation, often not able to say farewell to loved ones who died alone, is as incalculable as it is heartbreaking.

And let’s not forget that all this stress, trauma, and grief is occurring alongside racial trauma, political unrest, and other pandemic-related stressors that affect millions worldwide such as food scarcity,  unemployment and the loss of schooling.

It will take our whole “village” to recover. You can get things started by considering what you need to do to process your experiences. Just experiencing something happening to you is not necessarily “processing” it; it is more likely being processed by it. As we are coming out of this terrible season, it would make sense to go to your journal, if you have one, or just get a piece of paper and write down some ideas you think would help you to transition into post-pandemic life. You are probably wounded in some way; what would it take to heal? Just suggesting that process may have spurred some of us to look on ourselves with compassion. That’s important. Answer the question: “What steps can I take to get started on this new life we are all making?”

How could a professional help?

Many of us don’t feel like we have a lot of capacity to do much for ourselves, right now. We’re hopeless and helpless — and so tired! Professional support could help. But a bit of courage to address emotional and behavioral difficulties in our cells, families, friendships, and marriages would also help.

If you notice any of the following changes in yourself or a loved one, consider seeking professional help:

  • Anger, irritability, or difficulty getting along with others.  I’ve heard from a number of people that driving in Philadelphia has become even crazier than it used to be. The roadways seem to be one place where we are angry and can’t get along.
  • Difficulty sleeping or sleeping too much. The pandemic has a way of exacerbating what was already present. Your unhealthy sleeping habits may have become more pronounced and now you have a chance to see them. For some people sleeping is a way to avoid mental pain, so it indicates some need for action.
  • Social withdrawal.  I can note this in myself. I had a day full of phone calls from friends and relatives the other day and I felt a bit bored and wanted to go back to being alone. I relished those phone conversations, but they overwhelmed my underused capacity to connect! People, like me, keep talking about how we all acclimated to forced avoidance and it will take time to get out of it. Sex with partners has dropped off during the pandemic, too, even among married partners, as pornography and other solo sex practices have increased. It is worth taking steps to reconnect in intimate ways, too. It will take time.
  • Mentally beating yourself up.  Being left alone, actually or philosophically, this year put us under a lot of personal responsibility. A lot of us have been subject to a great deal of self-criticism. I think you can see our self-loathing projected onto our unkind politics in small groups and nationally. We are not kind to ourselves or each other and we are out of touch with our loving God.

You probably note some of these troubles at work in yourself. They are like an atmosphere in which most of my clients are experiencing their journey toward awareness and healthy choices these days. Given that the social contacts that help us solve our problems are frayed right now, you might like some professional help. For some of us, some brief therapy to help us change our minds and behavior might be great. For others, a deeper season of working with the realities that surfaced in this bizarre year might be in order. Most providers are providing teletherapy, which is an effective alternative to the more organic and deeper office visits (Circle Counseling website).

Take care of yourself.

I wish that good-bye phrase above would begin to replace “stay safe.” I’m toying with the idea of committing to saying, “God be with you, till we meet again” like our ancestor incorporated into the language. We’ll see. Regardless, it would be great if we have a season of reaching in and out, and reaching to God for an outbreak of renewal. Let’s have a mutual project of taking care of ourselves.

If you’ve stopped showering, habitually eat comfort foods that don’t comfort, have stopped calling people who love you, etc., pick one thing you can change over the next week. Then build on what changes one step at a time. Start small. Get dressed and/or get out of the house each day. Or add fruit or veggies to your meals. Make a list of people with whom you’d like to connect and call one. If you’re vaccinated, what prevents you from going out to dinner?

Social support is probably the most important predictor of recovery after a trauma. Now is a great time to tap into your support networks, check in with friends and family by Zoom, text, phone, or in person. Make the church come alive again! Invite other reluctant people to get into your cell and begin in-person meetings – we can do them outdoors for the pre-vaccinated. Re-introduce yourself to the neighbors. Consider how to get back into the office.

Most of all, don’t do anything that is not drenched with the grace of God, if you can help it. Cooperate with Jesus in how you treat yourself — you are the beloved of God. It has been a long, tough year, and it’s going to take time to reemerge and recover. But we will get there. We’re even more likely to get to renewed mental health if we do it together, with Jesus.

Back to the workplace and back to church meetings: Thoughts on re-entry

Everyone is talking about going back to work. For a lot of us, “going to work” during the pandemic has meant going to a newly-repurposed room in the house or to a card table in the living room. For many others, like nurses and delivery people, nothing changed except to become harder.

Now things are beginning to change. One of our friends suggested we give a workshop on returning to relationships, now that they are vaccinated. Connecting feels awkward. And we feel awkward about feeling awkward. So here is a first attempt to add to the conversation about re-entry.

Avoidance

The social anxiety many of us are experiencing, even when we see grandma again, has to do with overcoming the avoidance we installed during the shut down. We avoided getting sick for a long time. We were told to avoid people, so we arranged our lives to do so. We hid ourselves behind literal masks — normally we just use psychological masks to stay safe. But we adopted a further barrier between us and what could hurt us. That deliberate avoidance is not going away instantly.

When we want to overcome anxiety, it helps to “sneak up on” the thing we are avoiding. We can gently approach the situation or thought that scares us and undo the fear step by step. When we feel anxious about seeing someone we can take a deep breath, remember what we want, and note what we fear. Then we can do that behavior we decided ahead of time we would like to do, like hug someone, or shake their hand, or tell them we are still fist bumping, or wave to them and tell them we will call them later to catch up.

Robin Ware will tell you all you need to know — for a price.

What about church meetings?

Pretty soon, we will be asked to meet in person, again. All our congregations have tried it at some level. Being asked to attend a meeting will call on each of us to have an opinion, make a decision, and enact a behavior we have been avoiding. Religious gatherings were one thing the government could easily point to as exactly what should not be happening if we wanted to avoid spreading the coronavirus. I think the following understandings will help us all make it back into face-to-face community.

Leaders need to get some buy-in. Sorry for the capitalist metaphor (we’re deeper than that). It describes the emotional and time resources we need to commit to “re-open” the church (as if you could close it). The leaders need to demonstrate their  understanding that while all of us have experienced this crisis, we have not all experienced it the same way. Some of us have conditions that increase our risk of serious COVID-19 infection and will still be reluctant to return to the meeting. Others may be eager to leave online church meetings, but have caregiving responsibilities that make it difficult or impossible for them to do so. Sensitivity to this reality is a must. Quite a few people are reluctant to get the vaccine and their reasons are not all political. While we can’t expect our leaders to come up with a uniform agreement or a set of behaviors for us, we can expect them to consider all of us who need to come together in love as we are. We’ll need to help them.

We need time to adapt. Our buildings have changed while we were gone from them. Our habits have changed. Our outlooks have changed. The pandemic year may seem relatively brief, but it had a traumatizing impact. Responses to trauma embed themselves deep in our brain. It takes time to re-order mental habits [a favorite video about that]. We were forced to adjust one way, now we will be invited to adjust again. I did not say “adjust back” since that is not going to happen. Faith, hope and love survived the pandemic, but the ways we express those traits will never feel the same as they did. It will take time to figure out how to express them now. We will need to rebuild. Rebuilding will be advanced after we get back into our buildings. We can help the church adapt by participating in our dialogue with faith, hope and love and not with further fear and avoidance. The church cannot really be responsible for how fearful we are. We will need to walk with Jesus ourselves to overcome that.

Re-acclimating is not just a job for the leaders. We’ve been away from one another for a long time and a lot has happened. The people in my cell experienced a ton of change. The cell itself changed to one that included people from three states! Is it even possible for that cell to start meeting face to face? The leaders are going to come up with a communications strategy that allows us to share a common page for re-entry and considering who we have become. But they can’t think of everything. We are all going to have to do our best to speak up and to speak up for others. Just imagining how we retain the remote connections we have made online and organize public meetings is quite a task! We don’t want to wear out our pastors as we demand they “wait on our table,” even though we put it in Oregon! Jesus will maintain our love, but we will all need to exercise it.

We’ve always been about what is next. I hope we have a leg-up on people who might be tempted to restore what the pandemic stole from them. Personally, I am working on starting from here. Like any other year, I have losses and I have gains. I am messed up and I am a lot wiser. I had some failures and had successes. Unlike people who have no hope, we Jesus followers don’t just inventory our years as if they were investments. We tend to bloom where we are planted. Circle of Hope quite consciously accepts that we are the presence of the future, not a retread or an improvement on the past. I think I have learned a thing or two about myself and the world during the pandemic and will probably learn some more from it. I believe Jesus will use it all for his glory. Another round of resurrection is imminent.